Anna Claussen on how landscape architects’ gift for systems thinking can untangle our farm and land use policies.
Two years ago, Anna Claussen, ASLA, left a Minneapolis urban design firm for the nonprofit world. She talked over lunch with Adam Regn Arvidson, FASLA, about her own rural roots and that a family that still farms made her want to take some responsibility for how food is grown and distributed. She landed at the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, where she is dedicated to rethinking the food system, with the goal to create environmentally and economically sound rural communities. These days Claussen may find herself in the fields with midwestern farmers, on the phone with agriculture experts in Europe, or reviewing policy documents with an eye to the bigger landscape picture.
What are you and your colleagues at IATP working toward?
Dismantling a current agricultural system that is unsustainable and unjust. Where I intersect with that is on the ground with solutions to the policy issues and higher-level discussions about what’s not working—about how government is not supporting a system that is fair and sustainable. We start with farmers, so we can collect data, and we can work with them to understand what are the drivers, the motivators, and the barriers to changing landscape practices.
How do your training and experience as a landscape architect apply?
What I didn’t realize until coming out of traditional practice is how sensitive we are to people’s values. An ability to see values and how they align allows us on a grassroots level to understand how to bring about change. Specifically in the rural landscape, which is a very privatized landscape, it’s not as much about getting government to pass a certain policy; it’s about using your insight and empathy to illuminate how things could be in the future. In my work, I am increasingly shown how unique that asset is. People get very wrapped up in identifying and dissecting the issues of our food and ag system—the issues where our policies are falling short. They kill bills but fail to jump to a solution.
The other thing that landscape architects bring is systems thinking. There are so many pieces and moving parts within the food and ag system and the rural landscape. Rural people wear multiple hats, always, but they have to focus so much on their realm and their world that few people have the luxury to put the pieces together.
The farm bill is always contentious. What’s wrong with it? What would you change?
The reason why there’s been so much distaste for the farm bill is that it is an amalgamation of policies. Programs were put in place for specific reasons, and they were never integrated. There is no systems thinking in the farm bill. There is no stepping back to a higher level to understand where multifunctional landscapes fit in—that is, landscapes for production, recreation, and environmental benefit. People want to see them, but policy doesn’t allow them.
When it comes to the nutrition program [food stamps], many producers and rural community members feel that this is the one last place where we have a link between our food and our agricultural systems. In our country we should create access to a sustainable healthy food system.
But one of the most important things is crop insurance. Farmers need that safety net. But crop insurance is very cut-and-dried. There are five main crops that have a real safety net, so doing so-called third crops or alternative crops is more difficult. What’s not agreed upon is where does crop insurance intersect with changing climate patterns and the increasing amount of payments being made because of that. Until insurance is tied to climate change and resiliency, so that you don’t pay as much if you do resilient land practices, it will always be hard to convince farmers to take that risk.
But isn’t the rural population dwindling? Why spend so much time and effort on a demographic that is specialized and small?
Farmers are often accused of being a special interest group. And they are—if they’re not tied to the public benefits of food and land management. Rural communities make up just 16 percent of the nation’s population, but from the perspective of a landscape architect, or of anyone who’s doing land use planning, we have to recognize that that is 90 percent of our land, and almost all of our natural resources. We need a discussion beyond the farm bill. We don’t have all our national natural resources in the same bill, or in the same department. Forest resources are separated from agricultural resources. Public and private land management are separate, which is odd considering how much private agriculture (especially forestry and grazing) happens on public land. If we are trying to create a diverse economy to produce food, fiber, and energy, we have to do it holistically.